Moving Boundaries

3 Questions, 3 Answers: The Future of Alternative Proteins

Tofu schnitzels, oat milk or artificially cultivated seafood – alternative proteins are growing in popularity and now easily stand comparison with conventional proteins. But will we soon be eating nothing but replacement products made from wheat, soya, etc.? A food psychologist, an expert in food technology and a market expert provide answers.

Christoph Klotter
Christoph Klotter is Professor of Health and Nutrition Psychology at Fulda University.
Karen Tay
Karen Tay is team leader in the Alternative Proteins division at Classic Fine Foods Singapore, a subsidiary of METRO AG.
Christian Zacherl
Christian Zacherl is Business Development Manager for Food at the Fraunhofer Institute for Process Engineering and Packaging (IVV).

To what extent are alternative proteins revolutionising our eating habits?

Christoph Klotter: In terms of nutritional psychology, we are in the middle of a silent revolution. The whole food industry is changing and is focusing on the issue of sustainability. That’s why alternative protein products – which are ideally placed to meet future needs – are rapidly gaining ground. Millennials in particular are responsible for this major change in mindset: they are more quality-conscious and ethically responsible in their shopping habits, and they want to eat more healthily. According to the 2020 Nutrition Report by the Federal Ministry of Food and Agriculture, 55% of Germans now describe themselves as flexitarian, in other words flexible vegetarians who are consciously reducing their meat consumption. Most people wouldn’t even have known what a flexitarian was 10 years ago.

Christian Zacherl: Alternative protein have really taken off in the last 5–10 years, both in terms of demand and in product applications and research projects. This is due to a number of factors, including new domestic sources of raw materials and improved technologies and processing methods. The last two points in particular have greatly improved the quality of the products – particularly as regards taste and texture. We can expect further significant developments in this respect over the coming years.

Karen Tay: Although the increasing popularity of alternative proteins is a global phenomenon, the pace of development is especially fast in some countries and cities. For instance Hong Kong and Singapore currently leading the way in Asia. They are building attractive and innovative ecosystem that appeal to key stakeholders across the entire value chain, like ingredient suppliers, processing companies, academia, start-ups and investors. Accelerating regulatory frameworks, especially around cultured meat will also determine how likely and how soon, they end up on our plates. Soy, being a common ingredient in plant-based proteins has long been part of Asian diets. At the same time, companies are adapting proteins to match local cuisine and eating habits as closely as possible, and this is helping to increase acceptance too.

How important will alternative proteins be for our future diets? 

Christoph Klotter: Alternative proteins will help to make our diets more varied. These will be even more strongly linked to our individual lifestyles and identity. The food we choose always has a cultural and social significance. People establish an identity and create social belonging by, for example, choosing to eat vegan, cook African food or spend the summer barbecuing. Our meat consumption will decline and replacement products will become more commonplace. But it is unlikely that meat will disappear completely. After all, it has stood for wealth, survival, power and masculinity throughout the history of mankind. It is a form of social participation.

Christian Zacherl: Plants will make up a large share of future protein sources. Protein substitutes will become more important, particularly in areas where they already enjoy a high level of acceptance – as substitutes for mince or as sausage or milk substitute, for example, where it is hard to tell the difference from the animal pendant. And in comparison with other alternative proteins such as fermented products or lab-grown meat, I believe plants are likely to retain the lion‘s share in future. That’s because they are a very efficient protein source, are already available in a broad selection and in good quality, are widely accepted by consumers and are profitable.

Karen Tay: Alternative proteins could be part of the solution for a sustainable food system, as they are very resource-efficient to produce. But the trend will go beyond creating pure substitute products – in other words, products that imitate the food we already eat. There will be completely new products. Chefs will play an important role here as culinary experts. They can use the products to create eating experiences and extraordinary dishes that we can’t even imagine today.

What are the challenges to making alternative proteins fit for the future?

Professor Christoph Klotter: I think a key task will be to establish a culture of mutual respect. Meat eaters and vegans should make an effort to understand one another. This requires target group-specific communication that educates and creates understanding. 

Christian Zacherl: There is currently a Europe-wide shortage of processing capacity for alternative proteins. Investment is needed to set up specialist production facilities. Here, the proteins must be extracted in the highest possible quality in terms of sensory properties and functionality and, if possible, from regional raw materials. This requires new, efficient extraction technologies and tailored process control. Also, farmers need to be trained so that they have the know-how required to grow the new raw materials. This includes learning how to handle the new plant species and how to best sequence for crop rotation. 

Karen Tay: We test product samples sent by companies from all over the world on a weekly basis. Many products are close imitations of the original and the variety is immense, but there are still some quality gaps that need to be closed. Taste aside, consumers also have high expectations when it comes to alternative proteins, for example on nutrition, sustainability details – often higher than for their conventional equivalents. Additionally, further growth will depend on prices. Only when they are affordable for majority of the population will alternative proteins be a true alternative.


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